What do you want to do when you sense that someone you love is depressed? Help them, sure. But how?
Knowing the right thing to do or say can be really hard, especially if you’ve never dealt with depression yourself. But being unsure of the correct move doesn’t mean you should stay quiet.
“The best way to express concern about a loved one’s depression is to ask to be invited to their struggles,” says psychotherapist Brandon Santan, PhD. “Let them know you notice something’s going on and express empathy.”
Looking for some tips to get the conversation going and offer ongoing support? Santan and Kaylin Staten, a 31-year-old from West Virginia who has struggled with depression for most of her life, lent us their thoughts. Here’s their advice for how to give your loved one the care they need.
1. Don’t tell them how they seem.
“When you appear combative or judgmental, a person with a mental health issue will not open up to you,” says Staten, of her own experience.
Say something that gets taken the wrong way, and there’s a good chance they’ll shut down completely.
How you approach the conversation can make all the difference. Instead of describing how you think the person feels (like “You seem sad,” or “You seem depressed,” just ask them how they’re feeling or what’s been on their mind. “I’ve found that listening and asking open-ended questions will help drive the conversation in a positive way,” Staten says.
2. Listen, but don’t try to solve their problems.
You might want to offer a fix or tell your loved one you know how they feel. But unless you’ve actually struggled with depression yourself, resist the urge to tell them what you would do, recommends Santan. The reason: If you start talking about your self, it might make your loved one clam up, Santan notes.
You can—and should—try to empathize and show your support. Just do it in a way that keeps the focus on them. “I [respond best when people] say something like, ‘I cannot directly relate to that, but it sounds like that is something that’s really hard to deal with,’” Staten says. Sometimes a little bit of validation can go a long way.
3. Make plans, but keep them low-key.
Even if your loved one isn’t actively asking you to hang out, an offer to get together reminds them that you’re thinking of them and that you care. Instead of asking them to come along to a party or club, though, suggest a one-on-one activity where there’s less pressure to act upbeat or socialize with lots of people.
Suggest a one-on-one activity where there’s less pressure to act upbeat.
“A walk in the park, a late afternoon movie, a quiet restaurant, or even a drive through the country would all be better,” says Santan. (That’s especially true if the person has substance abuse problems, since alcohol or drugs and depression don’t mix well.) They might not be up for it every time, and that’s okay. You can still keep asking.
4. Try not to take rejection personally.
It can be tough to shake the thought that you’re doing something wrong when your loved one is withdrawn or wants to be alone a lot. But they’re not pushing you away on purpose—so don’t turn it into that. “It’s not about you, and they’re not doing it to harm you in any way. He or she honestly needs some time alone,” says Staten.
What’s more, suggesting that their need for space is somehow bringing you down will probably just make them feel worse. Instead of fixating on what you might be doing wrong or how you’re hurting, take a step back. “Look at the whole equation and focus on the other factors in your loved one’s life that may be contributing to their depression,” Santan says.
5. Know when to bring in a professional.
You can’t force someone with depression to go to a therapist, and trying to will usually just push them away. But you should seek help if you sense that your loved one’s depression is getting worse.
Downhill signs might include a change in sleeping or eating habits, acting more isolated or withdrawn, poor self-care, not being able to take care of their usual responsibilities, or excessive crying, agitation, or irritability, Santan says. “If the depression worsens but there are no medical emergencies such as suicidal thoughts, talk with the person’s medical doctor,” he says.
Seek medical attention ASAP if your loved one is showing signs of thinking about suicide.
Of course, you should seek emergency medical attention ASAP if your loved one is showing any signs of thinking about suicide—like talking about wanting to die, looking for ways to commit suicide, talking about feeling hopeless or trapped, talking about being a burden to others, or behaving recklessly.
“Do whatever is necessary to keep them safe, regardless of whether or not you think they want that kind of help,” says Santan. Call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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